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How Delhi carved out its diplomatic space on Russia-Ukraine war

Sources said that maintaining a position of equidistance from both sides — despite being called “shaky” by US President — New Delhi has also been able to put its point across that “it is not aligned with Russia.”

Written by Shubhajit Roy | New Delhi |
Updated: March 30, 2022 5:31:42 am
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with S Jaishankar at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. (Express Photo: Anil Sharma, File)

One month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, New Delhi has created a distinctive diplomatic space for itself, carefully calibrating its stand between Russia on the one hand and the West, led by the US, on the other.

There is an acknowledgment of this position along with a guarded assessment of what this space holds, diplomats from at least six countries — across the aisle — have told The Indian Express.

Carving out this space has needed significant spadework: Since the war broke out February 24, India has either made or received at least 26 phone calls at the level of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar.

Modi has had at least three meetings with world leaders, including the Quad, and Jaishankar has had at least six with his counterparts visiting New Delhi.

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This reachout is gathering pace. In the coming weeks, the diplomatic calendar is full: leaders and officials from Israel, UK, Nepal, Germany, European Union and some eastern European countries, are in the pipeline.

Close on the heels of Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi, a visit by Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is in the works, sources said. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will visit Delhi March 31 and Israel PM Naftali Bennett is scheduled to visit from April 3 to 5, provided he recovers from COVID-19 by then.

Sources said that maintaining a position of equidistance from both sides — despite being called “shaky” by US President — New Delhi has also been able to put its point across that “it is not aligned with Russia.”

Destroyed cars are seen in front of an apartment building which was damaged during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine. (Reuters)

This has been reflected in India’s abstentions — at least six so far at the UNSC, UNGA and the Human Rights Council — be it West-sponsored or Russia-sponsored draft resolutions.

Along with the abstentions, the Indian side has made statements underlining the three core principles: UN charter, international law and territorial integrity and sovereignty. This is a reference, sources said, very thinly veiled, to Russian action in Ukraine and Chinese action in India-China border as well as the Indo-Pacific.

This has reassured the US-led West that Delhi is not echoing the Russian line that Moscow faces an existential threat from NATO. Yet, in several conversations India has flagged that Moscow’s concerns need to be heard as well.

One important signal of distancing from Russia was that India sent Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla as it abstained on the Russian-sponsored resolution at the UNSC. Significantly, this happened a day after his meetings with visiting US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland – this is seen as more than coincidence.

At the same time, New Delhi has communicated to its Western allies, US, in the Quad, and in Europe that it can’t echo their criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “US President Biden can call him a war criminal and suggest he should be removed, we need to be a lot more careful,” said a senior official.

Washington, The Indian Express has learnt, has conveyed to Delhi that it is not going to press it on this issue because it knows “where it is coming from” — Delhi-Moscow history and dependence on defence supplies.

Moreover, Washington does not want to box Delhi into a shrinking space in which it does not have flexibility as it will be “counterproductive,” said a US diplomat. “India on Russia is work in progress and we need to work together,” said a US diplomat. New Delhi has reinforced this by explaining to US interlocutors how India’s defence supplies are closely tied to its threat from China — a common challenge to both US and India.

“There has been a belated, but grudging, acceptance of India’s position within the US administration…that may not be visible in the public rhetorical statements,” a top Indian government functionary told The Indian Express.

However, if Putin, desperate to end the war and inflict more damage, does take more drastic action, then New Delhi may find that space shrinking, a diplomat said.

Ukraine A Ukranian serviceman stands on top of a Russian tank captured after fighting with Russian troops in the village of Lukyanivka outside Kyiv, Ukraine as Russia’s invasion of the country continues (Reuters)

The West also hopes that India will maintain its leverage with Putin — PM Modi has spoken to Putin thrice since the war began — so that Delhi can be used to deliver messages, if such a need arises. “India has the potential of becoming an effective and powerful intermediary, if the situation demands,” a Western diplomat told The Indian Express.

Meanwhile, Russia, assured about what it calls India’s “balanced” and “principled” position, has communicated its appreciation. It hopes it can end the war by grabbing Donetsk as part of its territory and its influence in Kyiv, whoever is there in power. “India is a friend, and it understands threat from foreign powers in its backyard. So their position is quite evolved,” a Russian diplomat said.

Russian Ambassador Denis Alipov met senior officials in the Ministry of External Affairs and is preparing for the visit by Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov this week.

“The initial exercise of piling pressure on Delhi to condemn Russian actions has proved to be futile,” a Western diplomat told The Indian Express. Said a European diplomat: “Now that we know that India won’t criticise the Russians publicly, we are working with the Indians to make sure they don’t circumvent the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia.”

That is a major challenge as Europeans and US diplomats frame this as a “with-us-or-against-us” moment but India, always vocal against “unilateral sanctions”, has not made any commitments either way.

Sensing a gap between India and the West, China — which has been backing Putin — made an extraordinary outreach by sending Foreign minister Wang to Delhi, despite sharply-worded critical statements by Delhi against him and Beijing’s position at the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation).

Jaishankar made it quite plain that there is a distinction between India’s and China’s position on the Russian war on Ukraine. Having said that, there is a realisation that Beijing, by making the outreach move, has created a diplomatic space in the bilateral ties for India to respond favourably — if the redlines are met and the remaining friction point at PP-15 in eastern Ladakh is resolved. One objective from Beijing’s point of view is to get Modi for the BRICS Summit later next year.

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